We are a few weeks into the new school year. For many families, the return to routine and
structure is a relief. However, for some, the start of a school year can be quite stressful.
Inevitably, South Lake starts getting phone calls about how to help a child or teen that doesn’t
want to go to school. Whether it’s getting them out the door, phone calls about stomach aches
from the nurse, or lots of grumbling, parents are asking for guidance. Here are a few thoughts
and tips for different ages and stages.
If your child doesn’t want to go to school or is calling frequently to be picked up, start by trying
to understand the “why” of their ask. Everybody wants to be heard when they are struggling.
Is there something happening at school that is making them uncomfortable? Bullying? Fear of
failure? Anxiety triggered by the overwhelming hallways of high school? Perhaps there is a
problem to address that can alleviate the avoidance.
Younger children having a difficult time can be helped by structure. It can help to have
something to look forward to at the end of the day. For example, make a calendar to hang up
that shows the days of the week, when the child is at school, and when they are home. If your
child isn’t reading yet, put pictures up to help guide them. Perhaps the end of each day
includes a picture of a book indicating family story time or popcorn to show that it will be
movie night. Sometimes having something physical at school can help a young child
remember that you are thinking about them even if you aren’t together. Try a picture of your
family to tape to their desk or matching string bracelets that you and your child wear to remind
you of each other.
With older children and teenagers, the struggles can be big. If you have a school avoidant
teen, sometimes you need to start with how much school can you get them to. Can they make
it to a period? Two periods? Take a look at when they are triggered to avoid school. Is
walking into the building difficult with all of the people? Having someone to meet them and
walk in can help. Social connections are a big motivator in this group. Who is your teen
connecting with and how can that get them into school? Look to a teacher they connect with
as well as peers. Older teens start questioning their motivation for things. They want to
understand the why of what they are doing. So ask them what their why is. Do they want to
go to college? Do they want to graduate? What are their goals and how does getting to
school help them accomplish them? If a teen is in school (i.e. not skipping and truant already),
do everything you can to keep them going. If school causes anxiety, avoidance is a natural
response. However, this creates a loop of more anxiety when you try to get them back to
school. Try to work through their anxiety, with therapists if needed, while keeping them in
If your child is having physical pain while in school, like headaches or stomach aches, have a
plan in place. Perhaps it’s taking a bathroom break, doing some deep breaths, or a brief visit
to the nurse. Work with your child’s school on what they can do to help with the situation.
School avoidance can range from a mild to a major issue for families. Hopefully the above
gives you some ideas about where to start. Please reach out to your clinician at South Lake
Pediatrics if you find you are needing more help. We will offer our best guidance and, if
needed, we can refer you to our mental health colleagues for their expertise.
(written with the help of Ashley Crist, MSW, LICSW – Prairie Care therapist at South Lake Pediatrics)
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